Not for Horrid Profs

Colin Burrow

  • Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode
    Allen Lane, 324 pp, £20.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9378 2

The Oxford English Dictionary cites more than 33,000 passages from Shakespeare to illustrate the sense of English words. About 1900 of its main entries have first citations from Shakespeare. Although these figures are certain to over-estimate the impact of Shakespeare on the language there is no doubt that his vocabulary of about 29,000 words left English greater in all ways than it was before. This was largely a result of his extraordinary willingness to make nouns verbs and verbs nouns, to add prefixes and suffixes, and use words previously undocumented.

Lexical innovations are only a small part of the impact of Shakespeare’s language, however. He tests his readers and audiences to think about all the different ways in which words can mean: the shaping forms of rhetoric, the energies of a colloquial phrase, the force of a gesture (when Coriolanus holds his mother by the hand, silent, there is a conscious trumping of the verbal by the gestural), and the intricate social pressures of a conversation. In reading and watching Shakespeare, it helps to think about who is speaking, and how and why; who they are speaking to, who is not speaking, and how other characters might be responding to what is being said, how the dramatist is using the language of theatre to structure his scenes and shape the effect of what is being said on the higher language of the plot. It also helps to think about what people onstage cannot quite say, either to themselves or to the other characters present, and what sorts of thing Shakespeare may not have quite been able to say, whether for reasons of political prudence (of which he had great store) or because it was not quite possible to say them within the mental world in which he operated. In different phases of Shakespeare’s career and in different sorts of scene each of these pressures has a different weight, and it takes great critical delicacy – of a kind which has much in common with that of a theatre director or a conductor – to determine exactly how they press against each other. Shakespeare also frequently melted strands of imagery together so that they are all but unpickable apart. This makes the whole venture of hearing or reading his language an endless process of balancing difficulties of interpretation against each other to arrive at a view of a scene or of a play that one knows may hold good only for the moment in which one is reading the play or seeing a production.

Shakespeare is, as Frank Kermode termed him in a lecture given to celebrate the poet’s 400th birthday in 1964, ‘patient’: he endures because his writing has ‘power to absorb our questions’ and has shown an extraordinary ability to adapt itself to the concerns of each age. But as well as being patient he is also volatile (and it may be that the volatility of Shakespeare’s language is the chief reason for his patience): one does not need a new age to dawn for one’s own sense of the pacing or conversational effect of a moment in Shakespeare to change. It can change as you reread or rethink, or as a result of one remark in a commentary or one peculiar inflection in a performance. So, to take a tiny example: when, in Much Ado about Nothing, Borachio reveals that Claudio has been tricked into believing Hero is unfaithful, Don Pedro asks: ‘Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?’ Iron has to be hot to melting-point before it ‘runs’, but cold steel can run you through. A sword is in the words, so too is a sudden rush of liquid heat brought about by anger and molten remorse. How the line works depends on a myriad of circumstances: the pace of performance, the extent to which a director or critic is willing to allow the scene to be drawn up short, the quick-wittedness of an audience.

From an early stage in Shakespearean criticism people have wondered how far Shakespeare was in control of what he wrote. Ben Jonson, who honoured Shakespeare’s memory ‘on this side idolatry’, felt that the fluency of his language should have been curbed a little more (‘would he had blotted a thousand’ was his notorious response to hearing Shakespeare praised for never having blotted a line). Samuel Johnson catches Shakespeare ‘entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.’ A more accommodating view of the fleetingness of his language was taken by Hilda Hulme in her great study of aspects of Shakespeare’s language left unrecorded in the OED:

double-meaning … is of special value to the dramatist as part of the never-again-ness of his language; reader and ‘auditor’ are kept alert and required to accept as part of the natural order of things that what a word can mean will change with the changing situations of the external world. And as Shakespeare contrives it, we have the impression that not the speaker only, but the language also, exerts some control over what is said.

Frank Kermode’s new book, written with all his laconic majesty, is ‘not for horrid profs’, as he put it in a letter to his publisher. It is a work for the general reader by a great critic in the line of Jonson and Johnson. The book has two main aims (readers of the LRB have already had a taster of the argument in the issue of 9 December 1999): one is to bring attention back to Shakespeare’s language, since, as Kermode sees it, critics are now too concerned with politics and power to acknowledge that Shakespeare wrote poetry. The second aim is to describe a Shakespeare whose work displays distinctive virtues and failings at different stages of his career. The plays written before Shakespeare’s company moved to the Globe in 1599 are often, in Kermode’s view, too fond of rhetorical devices, and sometimes amass comparisons and similes without any regard for characterisation or dramatic context. They are accordingly discussed together, and some are given short shrift, in the sixty or so pages of Part 1 (this section also includes Twelfth Night, which was almost certainly written around 1601: the comedies are not at the centre of Kermode’s Shakespeare). The works written after the watershed of 1599, he argues, show characters thinking in verse – Brutus meditating on the space ‘between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion’; Claudius sweating over his sin in Hamlet – and these moments are for Kermode the core of what is valuable in Shakespeare. Like Johnson, though, he finds that Shakespeare’s rhetorical muscles sometimes bind his characters up in phrases which are unnecessarily obscure. This tendency grows with age until in the late plays people sometimes cannot understand each other, and the audience, too, is tested to the limits by a nearly incomprehensible compression of meaning.

Weaving in and out of this chronological argument are reflections on the ways in which ‘the little language’ (as Virginia Woolf called it) of each play works. Shakespeare’s mature dramas are underwritten by ‘matrices’ of repeating words and themes (here Kermode draws on Empson’s Structure of Complex Words): ‘In these echoing words and themes, these repetitions that are so unlike the formal repetitions of an earlier rhetoric, we come close to what were Shakespeare’s deepest interests. We cannot assign them any limited significance.’ The fine chapter on Hamlet develops the argument of an earlier essay to suggest that the ‘tune’ of the play is the figure of hendiadys (by which one idea or thing is expressed by two coupled terms, such as ‘the book and volume of my brain’), which each character catches in a distinctive way. Polonius does it in lumbering form as though on a bassoon (‘with windlasses and with assays of bias’), Hamlet in a quizzical way which suggests that no one word is quite up to the difficulty of reality (‘the motive and the cue for passion’). ‘World’ and ‘become’ serve similar functions in Antony and Cleopatra, images of sight and clothing for Lear. By Timon of Athens dogs are used as a recurrent theme in a rather unconvinced way, and Kermode feels the technique is becoming tired. There are rich seams of reflection – on relations between substance and shadow, time and eternity, admirable summaries of the complex textual histories of some of the plays, thoughts on the infinitude of interpretative processes – which compensate for some slight disappointments: the Sonnets, the fullest, hardest, most demanding examples of Shakespeare’s language at its most versatile and at its most obscure, are invoked only occasionally for comparison.

The chief blindspot of the book, however, is its undervaluation of the sharply pointed rhetoric which made Shakespeare famous. To refer to the language of Shakespeare in the early 1590s as the ‘old ranting rhetorical style’ is to ignore the fact that to audiences in the 1590s that early language was challengingly, dazzlingly new. It gave them the copiousness of matter and symmetry of form which they valued so highly. In the early histories the patterned repetitions of Shakespeare’s rhetoric stage a little drama of the violences of a nation at war with itself. The language of these plays is also often more patient than Kermode allows. Take Warwick’s report of a battle in Henry VI, Part 3:

Their weapons like to lightning came and went;
Our soldiers’, like the night-owl’s lazy flight,
Or like an idle thresher with a flail,
Fell gently down, as if they struck their friends.

Kermode says that ‘this is surely to make the points as one would make them in a non-dramatic poem, or possibly an oration, where the report and the pathos of the report can be enhanced by a succession of comparisons.’ True, the night-owls and threshers don’t have any obvious link with the idea of striking one’s friends (and it is hard not to take a negative view of images which don’t relate to each other organically since the New Criticism told us they should do so). But there is a Shakespearean dazzle as you hear the text, or read it in the first printed version, which of course had no apostrophe after ‘soldiers’: it seems for a moment as if ‘our soldiers’ are dropping as they fight, with the long slow swoop of a night-owl or the broken-legged swing of an idle thresher’s flail. My perverse ear hears that passage as a good one, though not one, perhaps, of which its writer was in full control.

Values change, of course. And the key question raised by this book is one of value: should we argue over which bits of Shakespeare are more or less good, and how can we do so without sounding unhistorical or post-prandial? And how do Kermode’s evaluations stand up to scrutiny? Evaluative criticism is now only fractionally more popular than slavery, since it is often thought to expose both the subjectivity of the critical enterprise and the prejudices of the critic. It need not, however, be anything more than a matter of commending a book or a passage or a poem to others to read (which we all do all the time). It can also be a sophisticated and a self-conscious activity: to evaluate a passage entails forming an idea of what it is trying to achieve and working out in detail whether or not, and how, it achieves it. The reason why criticism is fun, and democratic, and subject to change, is that other people come along with different conceptions of what a work might be trying to achieve and will consequently form different opinions of its success. This is the kind of thing Kermode has been saying for some time. In 1964 he wrote: ‘We are all members of a secret society, of which the principal ritual is to speak well of Shakespeare. We should find the search for a real outsider – someone really able to approach Shakespeare without the faintest awe; a really profane critic in fact – a long hard one.’ Kermode showed then that he had enough of the heretic in him to humanise the bard: ‘under pressure, with a deadline to make, he sometimes wrote very badly, and when he was unassailably top dramatist he was occasionally self-indulgent.’ To value Shakespeare means accepting that there are things that should be valued in his language and things which should not be, and attempting to discriminate between them. The alternative, he argues, is bardolatry.

The patient Shakespeare is bound to fight back. The chief value of arguments about value is to make people reconsider the case for a particular judgment and the foundations on which it rests. This keeps the critical conversation alive. But who is to arbitrate over and direct these discussions about value? And where do our views of what a work is trying to achieve come from? For Kermode in the middle of his career ‘the academy’ was the arbiter of what you could and couldn’t convincingly say about the value of a canonical text. He is now suspicious of most institutionalised forms of criticism, and in this book evaluates Shakespeare in conscious opposition to many of the priorities of the academy today. He reserves particular scorn for the belief that ‘to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of his day to an extent that has only now become intelligible.’ His scepticism over the value of political readings of Shakespeare has a determining effect on the story he tells about Shakespeare’s development, and on the kinds of play and scene which he values. The book begins with the history plays, which are taken as a group. This might leave some readers with the impression that they are early and relatively unimportant (although Henry V was probably written only just before Julius Caesar). Kermode suggests that the prison scene at the end of Richard II marks a stage in the emergence of characters who think in verse, and shows ‘signs of a language formidably changing to meet greater challenges’, and that in Henry IV Shakespeare comes to understand and develop the potential of prose. But if Shakespeare’s art partly grew from the ingenious ways he responded to political pressures then there is a far stronger case to be made for the value of the history plays, and for their significance in Shakespeare’s development. In Richard II Shakespeare encountered a set of not quite articulable pressures which nudged his writing in new directions: Richard’s insistently mirrored and self-watching rhetoric is treated with a careful theatrical distance, and is what finally unthrones him (‘With mine own tears I wash away my balm,/With mine own hands I give away my crown’). The deposition scene plays a vital part in Shakespeare’s gradual movement away from a style which wears its rhetorical figures on its face; but it also makes the rhetorician King talk his throne away because to have represented someone else actively taking it from him would have been exceedingly risky. Bolingbroke’s silences in the deposition scene are a superb theatrical response to the fact that Shakespeare could not afford, towards the end of the reign of his childless Queen, to be too clear about the motives or justifications of a usurper. This scene was presumably omitted from printed editions before 1608 because in it Shakespeare’s language was approaching dangerously close to things which could not be said (this is one of the few points at which Kermode does not comment on a play’s textual history). The scene, and its wary walking around the unsayable, had a lasting effect on Shakespeare’s treatment of elaborately formalised rhetoric, and, through its presentation of Bolingbroke, on his representations of the reserves of character and the mysteries of rule. The Hamletical elusiveness of Prince Hal, too, is partly a result of a complex interplay of theatrical and political pressures (how do you give legitimacy to the rule of the apparently unworthy son of a usurper, and how does that affect the dramatisation of the character?), and that, too, left a lasting imprint on Shakespeare’s writing. Politics has a place in readings of Shakespeare, and it has a central place in the development of Shakespeare’s art in the absolutely crucial period of the mid-to-late-1590s.

Many of Kermode’s local judgments of value are founded on a Johnsonian predilection for the lucid. They do not always take account of the fact that Shakespeare wrote for the theatre, and that his language tries to evoke particular sorts of verbal environment onstage (courts, cities, battlefields, bedrooms: the decorum of speech is different in each of these places). If you take this view of the aims of Shakespeare’s language then your sense of which passages are to be valued also changes. Lady Macbeth’s speech of welcome to Duncan, for instance, is undeniably complex, and Samuel Johnson would not have liked it:

                  All our service
In every point twice done, and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honours deep and broad wherewith
Your majesty loads our house.

Kermode says of this: ‘On many occasions Shakespeare, needing a simple expression, cannot avoid complicating it in this way, as if by an excess of energy.’ The passage does follow the ‘more than the most’ figure of thought of which Shakespeare may have been too fond. But Lady Macbeth’s language is being pressed on by the plot: she is greeting a King whom she has plotted to murder, and she speaks a language that does not look him in the eye. Shakespeare wants to give her a touch of the Gonerils, that hyperbolically involved rhetoric of which he is in his later phase so morally suspicious. She is also presented as thinking in the background about ways in which the King’s ‘majesty’ when detached from the present King might bring honour to her house. ‘Business’ is a word the ‘little language’ of this play steeps in blood – ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ ‘the bloody business’ – and ‘point’, too, has an edge in a play in which daggers hover in the air. A little later on, Macbeth says to Banquo:

                  Being unprepared
Our will became the servant to defect,
Which else should free have wrought.

Kermode describes this as ‘one of those unnecessarily involved expressions so common in Shakespeare when the point is pointless courtesy’. Again, the language here could be valued differently if it were read dramatically. Macbeth’s literal meaning is that because he has had short notice of his King’s arrival he has not been able to make lavish preparations. The way he says this is indeed surprisingly complex, but it resonates with Lady Macbeth’s rebuke in the previous scene that he cannot pursue his will to murder through to the performance: he is abstracted, thinking about what his will is not up to. Kermode favours moments (usually soliloquies) when characters are deliberating, stage by stage, option by option, to be or not to be. His valuation of these moments leads him correspondingly to undervalue moments at which characters are acting to others and appearing to think elsewhere, and at which audiences can be expected to accompany them in both places at once.

Kermode writes of the late plays: ‘What we feel, even before we start to unpack the language, is its pace, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we grasp them.’ He also finds in later works a danger that ‘the muscle-bound contortions of the late Shakespeare’s language’ will result in something unintelligible. He gives among examples of this tendency several moments at which characters fail to understand each other, and suggests that in writing them Shakespeare was partly trying to outwit his increasingly sophisticated audience. In Cymbeline Imogen can’t grasp what Jachimo means when he darkly suggests her husband is unfaithful:

Sluttery, to such neat excellence opposed,
Should make desire vomit emptiness,
Not so allured to feed.

Imogen responds: ‘What is the matter, trow?’ This moment makes deliberate use of obscurity. When we fail to understand someone we do not just fail to grasp their meaning. We might feel suspicious of someone we can’t understand, or uneasy, implicitly rebuked, out in the cold, on our guard, hostile. Little opacities and sometimes disproportionate responses to them weave in and through most of our conversational acts, and much of our time in conversation is spent unpicking their effects. Shakespeare recognised this at least as early as Othello (when Iago mercilessly uses the power which comes of not letting someone understand you), and saw in the later plays that his wrought style could serve those effects well. So here. Jachimo is trying to rock Imogen onto the back foot, preying on her unease about her husband’s absence, so he can work on her faith in Posthumus. Kermode accepts that the obscurity here is ‘part of the personation’. But the exchange is also one of several in the later plays which dramatise the way someone tries to make use of obscurity. Shakespeare is not just going off, or trying to fox his audience, or losing patience with the business of being clear: he is catching hold of and using the nasty social trick of talking to people in ways they don’t understand.

In presenting these alternative valuations I am playing the game Kermode wants us to play. I have a different view of what Shakespeare’s language is trying to achieve, and this leads me to present valuations which differ from his. There are risks attached to doing this: it could be that all I have shown is that it is possible to argue that any sort of incomprehensible nonsense is, in its dramatic context, good (provided it is by Shakespeare). This would be bardolatry indeed. Kermode is right to insist that if you are prepared to say when a work succeeds in what it is trying to achieve you also need to be able to say when it fails. To play the evaluation game fairly one would have to say that there are bits of Shakespeare which do not work well (and wait for someone else to come along with different ideas of what the words are trying to achieve which will make them see their value differently). I am not sure that there are very many of these, but when Norfolk in Henry VIII describes the Field of the Cloth of Gold his language does seem more tangled than its dramatic setting warrants – even though he is meant to be glitteringly courtly:

As I belong to worship and affect
In honor honesty, the tract of every thing
Would by a good discourser lose some life,
Which action’s self was tongue to.

What may have gone wrong here is that in this first scene of a collaborative play Shakespeare had not quite established a working interrelationship between language and action. As a result here, and at several other moments in the collaborative last plays, the language runs away with him. Shakespeare’s language requires circumstances to direct its complexity; and where he does not have a clear idea of the whole shape of a play or scene his language can become tangled. Or so it seems to me; someone who attached higher value to dramatic collaboration in this period might hear and value these lines differently.

Many horrid profs will hear and value Shakespeare differently from Kermode. Some of them will feel that this book is seeking to turn the clock back thirty odd years to a world in which it was possible to say that sometimes Shakespeare is beautiful and sometimes he was in a hurry, and to a period in which the movement of soliloquies and the inwardness of characters were the main object of critical concern. The book is not kind to the present generation of profs, whose political and theatrical responses to Shakespeare offer more than Kermode allows. But it will speak, as criticism now usually does not, to people who read and go to plays. It will make sense of Shakespeare for them, and will reassure them when he seems not to make sense. That makes it valuable. It also has a larger purpose, in which I hope it will succeed: to make us all think about how and why we value Shakespeare’s language.